10 Common Mistakes To Avoid When Tipping Restaurant Staff

Uncover the subtle errors that might be leaving your server less than satisfied.

Male waiter setting table for couple
Updated June 6, 2024
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Tipping when dining out in the U.S. is standard practice — and like it or not, your server depends on tips to make a living. But for many people, tipping etiquette is confusing.

To avoid shortchanging your server or other staff — or to keep from paying too much — here are 10 common restaurant tipping mistakes. 

Avoiding these errors can help you tip an appropriate amount and keep more money in your wallet than you would if you went overboard.

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Forgetting that 20% is the standard

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There's some disagreement among diners about the appropriate amount to tip. Many people think anything between 15% to 20% of the bill is acceptable.

However, seasoned servers will tell you that they may worry they did something wrong if they get anything less than 20%.

In most restaurants in the U.S., servers — as well as other staff such as bartenders and bussers — live off tips. Diners should expect to leave 20% on any bill unless it is a “no tipping” establishment.

Not considering coupons/freebies

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If you choose a restaurant because you have a coupon or gift card that knocks a serious chunk off your bill, don’t go cheap with the tip.

Remember, your server is still doing the same work they would if you weren’t getting that discount.

Even though your overall bill is lower, the tip should be calculated based on what the total would be if you paid the full price.

Not tipping on gifted items

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Some restaurants will hook you up with a free drink or dessert if you stop by on your birthday. Others simply offer free items to show customers some appreciation now and then.

If you get something for free, it’s typically expected that you’ll consider the normal price of the item while tipping. The same policy applies to bars when a bartender hooks you up with a free drink.

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Letting the money talk

Dan Dalton/KOTO/Adobe waiter serving fancy dishes to couple

Diners shouldn’t assume they can do whatever they want at a restaurant if they leave a good tip. Even for the best tippers, there's still general restaurant etiquette your server would prefer you to follow.

Remain respectful of staff and other diners. If someone in your party causes some unavoidable chaos — such as a messy toddler, for example — leaving a larger tip can help make up for the extra work staff may have to do.

Punishing waitstaff unnecessarily

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Many things that are beyond your server's control can go wrong at a busy restaurant. Maybe an issue in the kitchen caused your order to be delayed. Or perhaps the restaurant ran out of your favorite dish.

Etiquette experts stress that diners shouldn’t subtract from a server’s tips for things the server cannot control. And if there is an issue, servers would prefer you tell them so they can solve it.

Failing to tip bartenders

Peter/Adobe female bartending making cocktail at bar

While it’s generally not expected to tip 20% on a bar tab, a bartender is still providing a service. It is standard practice to tip them a few dollars.

The general consensus among bartenders is that a $1 to $2 tip per drink is fine if you're just ordering beer, wine, or a simple mixed drink. But if you’re getting a round of complicated cocktails, consider tipping in the 15% to 20% range.

Overlooking the tax

Monkey Business/Adobe waitress collecting payment using tablet

Some diners forget about tax when calculating how much to tip. On smaller bills, this is likely not a big deal.

However, when dining out with a group, and the bill is well over $100, tax can add up, especially if you’re in a high-tax area.

Diners must decide whether to tip on the pre-tax or post-tax total. Etiquette experts say it’s acceptable to tip on the pre-tax total as long as you stick to the 20% model.

Forgoing a tip on bad service

JackF/Adobe male waiter apologizing to female customer

Bad service does happen. Every now and then, diners may get stuck with a server who simply does not pay attention, is rude, or makes multiple mistakes putting in their order.

The impulse may be to skip out on the tip altogether. However, it’s important to remember that tips are typically split between staff, including servers, bussers, and bartenders.

If you really feel like you should lower the tip, consider sticking closer to 15% of the bill so the rest of the staff isn’t penalized too much for someone else’s mistake.

Not paying attention to the tipping screen

Friends Stock/Adobe female friends paying using card

Tipping screens are popping up everywhere these days — much to the ire of some customers. In restaurants, customers sometimes just hit the 20% tipping option without looking at the bill.

Payment platforms like the Square app let restaurant owners choose custom “suggested tip” amounts. That means they can determine if they want to calculate the tip pre-tax or post-tax, change the amounts to more than 20%, and so on.

Customers should look at what they’re tipping before just signing away, even if it takes an extra minute or two to pay.

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Missing the ‘gratuity included’ note

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Many restaurants include an “automatic gratuity” for large parties. It is standard to charge this fee for parties of six or more.

Diners can choose if they want to add gratuity on top of this, but it’s standard to include 20% pre-tax for large parties.

When dining with a large party, check the bill for a note about automatic gratuity so you don’t accidentally tip 40%.

Bottom line

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Even if you’re a bargain diner — and save your nights out for times when you have a Groupon or when restaurants offer good deals — it's still important to tip appropriately.

At the same time, there is no need to go overboard. If you're trying to get ahead financially, tip an amount that's fair — or a bit more if the server has earned it — without getting excessive.

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Author Details

Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore

Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore is a seasoned freelance writer who also teaches writing courses at Rutgers University. She's based in Jersey City and enjoys travel, live music and, of course, spending quality time with her pup.